SALEM — With legislation barring discrimination against transgender individuals in public establishments in limbo on state and national levels, some Massachusetts cities and towns are taking matters into their own hands.
In Salem, a new law approved unanimously by the City Council and signed by Mayor Kim Driscoll last Monday protects access for transgender individuals to public accommodations, including hospitals, transportation, nursing homes, supermarkets, retail establishments, and all other places open to the public.
By doing so, the city joins four other Bay state communities — Boston, Cambridge, Amherst, and Northampton — that have passed similar laws in the past year protecting access for transgender people to public accommodations.
“Salem is a city that welcomes all people who visit, live, and work in our community — no matter who they are, where they are from, or who they are perceived to be,” Driscoll told a gathering of officials and supporters at a signing ceremony Monday night in City Hall. “There are no second-class citizens in Salem. We not only embrace diversity, we champion it.”
Opponents call the local ordinances “bathroom bills” and said they are concerned they will allow biological men to demand access to women’s restrooms and locker rooms. They argue the protections, however well-intentioned, raise privacy and safety concerns.
“It’s a misguided attempt to do the right thing,” said Andrew Beckwith, president of the Woburn-based Massachusetts Family Institute. “And it’s also a bit of a zero-sum game, where one individual’s right to express themselves with a gender identity is violating another person’s right to privacy and perhaps even safety.”
Salem resident and LGBT activist Gary “Lady Gigi” Gill, who worked with city officials to write the new protections, said opponents who say that transgender people victimize others in restrooms and other public areas have it backwards.
“The reality is transgender people face violence and discrimination in public places every day,” Gill said. “We have since the beginning of time.”
Supporters of the new law said they see a parallel between the protections and the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692, when 19 people were hanged and one was pressed to death amid Puritan anti-witch hysteria that gripped the region.
“We saw this ordinance as a way to rally the community, extend those vital protections where needed, and establish Salem once and for all as a community where there is absolutely no place for hate,” said Scott Weisberg, chairman of the Salem No Place for Hate Committee, one of several organizations that helped write the new law. “This is a historic step for our city.”
On a state level, such efforts have fallen woefully short, according to LGBT activists.
In 2012, the Massachusetts Transgender Equal Rights Act became law, adding gender identity to the state’s hate crimes law and forbidding discrimination against transgender people in employment, housing, and credit.
But that bill did not offer protections in public accommodations, a provision that state lawmakers dropped from the final version. Of the 17 states with statewide nondiscrimination laws, Massachusetts remains the only one to omit the public accommodations provision.
“The lack of such a safeguard on the state level puts individuals at risk of being treated unfairly in many public settings where all should feel safe and secure,” said state Senator Joan Lovely and state Representative John Keenan, both Democrats from Salem, in a joint letter of support for Salem’s new law. “The lack of this protection also sets Massachusetts behind other states that have already passed trans-inclusive nondiscrimination laws.”
Hope Watt-Bucci, president of North Shore Pride, said she believes Salem has taken a bold step that other towns and cities will eventually follow.
“These little communities are taking a stand, and that will have a huge impact across the state and nation,” she said.
Current federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, and national origin. But it does not stop an employer from firing or refusing to hire workers because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Legislation barring such discrimination passed the Senate last November but has been stalled in the Republican-led House of Representatives.
President Obama’s administration several years ago proposed new federal guidelines that would prohibit workplace discrimination against transgender federal employees, but he has failed to follow through on that promise, LGBT activists say.
Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have approved laws banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and 17 of those also prohibit employers from discriminating based on gender identity.
About 88 percent of Fortune 500 companies have adopted nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation, according to the nonprofit group Human Rights Campaign. About 57 percent of those companies include gender identity.
Christian M. Wade can be reached at cmwade1969@
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